Arizona Opera’s ‘Carmen’ Graphic Novel Writer Alek Shrader: The Conskipper Interview

Most fans would not unite the worlds of Opera and comic books, but one person who immediately saw the connections was opera singer, director, writer, and comic fan Alek Shrader.

Opportunity for Shrader knocked thanks to Arizona Opera’s OnPitch Challenge and his pitch to transform the world-famous opera Carmen into a graphic novel was made a reality.

Shrader will now make the Carmen graphic novel available to those outside of Arizona through a brand new Kickstarter campaign and he discussed the origins of the project, his work with comic art legend P. Craig Russell, and the challenges for a first time comic writer in this exclusive interview.

How did you come up with the idea to pitch a graphic novel tie-in to the Arizona Opera based on Carmen?

Alek Shrader: I’m a lifelong comic collector and a writer by nature. Even before I was singing opera professionally, I had P. Craig Russell’s opera adaptations, plus the Thomas/Kane Ring cycle, and later Alex Alice’s Siegfried trilogy… I read them right along with Action Comics and X-Men. Later in life, I had the hopes to one day create my own graphic opera adaptation, but I never had the time. Then my sister sent me the announcement of Arizona Opera’s OnPitch Challenge, and I finally got the push to fully develop the idea! It’s easy to notice the massive, growing availability of graphic novel adaptations of basically everything in print (film and tv, too)– why not opera? So I wrote a business plan, made a “charmingly hilarious” video, submitted the pitch to AZO, and was ultimately named a winner. Carmen is a perfect choice for adaptation, since it is among the most popular operas performed, but did not have a recent graphic adaptation. But we really chose it to coincide with a live production scheduled for AZO’s opera season. Maybe it was FATE!

What storytelling aspects and traits do a graphic novel and an opera have in common?

Shrader: Both opera and graphic novels work in a medium of aesthetic beauty or style to communicate. The music of Bizet’s Carmen is vibrant and dramatic, and our graphic adaptation is representative of that classical style. I’d also argue that the stories told in graphic novels and opera are meant to have meaningful, cathartic impact, where the audience/reader can sympathize with the drama, or satisfy a sense of escapism (or both). Essentially, they’re both telling beautiful, engaging stories– but they work so well together because they’re so *different.* The audience at a live opera can really only observe (although their energy is absolutely influential to the performers on stage). On the other hand, the reader of a comic is in control of the story’s pace, tone, mood, voices, characters– it’s highly interactive. We hope that those familiar with one version of Carmen will seek out the other, and be enriched by both.

You are both an opera singer and now a first time writer of a graphic novel.  What did you learn about the process of creating a graphic novel through this project?

Shrader: I did a ton of research about comic book creation for the pitch, and then when it was time to really create one, I bought literally every single how-to book I could find. And they all provided a very good fundamental education (for example, panels per page and technical advice like that), but I learned the most about writing a comic by just writing the comic. P. Craig Russell had the BEST notes on my script drafts– very blunt, very actionable. And everything he said was based on drama and storytelling. He was the perfect mentor, and I am extremely lucky he was interested in the project. I think the number one rule I learned is to get out of the artist’s way! It’s ok to be specific, but leave them room to invent (it is, after all, what they do). That was counterintuitive to me as an opera director– I need to have absolutely everything mapped out and plotted! But go read Scott McCloud again, and identify what is singularly most important to each page, and each panel. (Or better yet, go get P. Craig Russell to do your layouts!) In the end, writing this adaptation made me very excited to write the next one, and that’s how you get better at any process.

What was it like working with P. Craig Russell and Aneke on Carmen?

Shrader: P. Craig Russell is a living legend, a master of his craft, and a champion of opera. Aneke is a top-tier talent, creating lines and colors of astounding beauty like a magician– I would see her draft pages and think “That’s her. That’s Carmen.” On top of that, they’re lovely people! We have a great collaborative process, with drafts and notes and discussions going back and forth. I am so, so grateful to have created this book with these artists who are dedicated to storytelling, and specifically the story of Carmen. They care about her, and it shows. Opera has this stigma of being exclusive or stuffy… these two artists will show you that opera can speak to everyone.

In terms of your own love of comics, what were your first influences?

Shrader: In my childhood, I was drawn to characters (Superman, Captain America, and Archangel were my favorites). I also cherished random issues I loved for the artwork. Turns out most of those issues were drawn by José Luis García-López, George Pérez, Gil Kane, or Walt Simonson. But the first series that I got every issue was the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition). Many, many times I got inspired to track down back issues from OHOTMU profiles! Years later, when I came back to comics, it was Eric Powell’s The Goon, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Abnett/Lanning’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and Parker/Kirk’s Agents of Atlas that hooked me (to name a few!). Now I read everything by Brian K. Vaughan and Tom King.

You are also working with some notable artists on prints for Carmen and upcoming productions at the Arizona Opera.  How did you solicit the artists for the prints?

Shrader: TRUE STORY– I politely slid into their DMs on social media, or emailed them out of the blue. I’m still amazed they all agreed! But I offered compensation at their full rate (being a performer with a rate, I can’t understate how important this is), and promised that the agreement would be fair and respectful. And they were all interested! And they’re all delightful!

How have your colleagues and the management at the Arizona Opera responded to this unique venture?   

Shrader: Arizona Opera has been AMAZING at turning themselves into a comic book publisher. We have all learned so much about creating comics, I would be very sad if Carmen were the only book we make together. They were supportive at every turn, and eager to see this project to fruition. Led by President & General Director Joseph Specter, with Cassie Robel initially taking lead on the comic project, AZO is proving that they want to explore innovation in opera and opera-adjacent projects. It’s very exciting to be a part of that culture. It all came together beautifully!

Check out the standard cover, as well as one of three Kickstarter exclusive Carmen prints (this one by Marguerite Sauvage) below. The Carmen graphic novel project will be available to back until Thursday, April 28 2022. If you’d like to know more about AZO’s upcoming performances, check out their upcoming schedule right here.

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